Feminism In London 2010

Monday, 25 October 2010

There has to be a very good reason for me to get up at 6.15am on a Saturday. Luckily, the largest feminist conference the UK has seen in over 10 years happens to be an excellent reason, so there I was, hopping on the 07:48 to King's Cross.

There were over 1000 of us, men and women, students and pensioners, children and babies - making it the largest Feminism in London conference yet. The mood was excited and expectant and I was pleased that there was a 'speed feministing' session before the conference started to enable people to make new friends. Personally I didn't manage to get there as I was busy looking at all the stalls but as someone who generally goes to these events on my own, I can definitely say that I imagine it was really worthwhile for a lot of people.

The opening session of the day, entitled 'Women in Public Life', provided much food for thought in light of last week's news about the financial changes set to hit so many and was a great start to the day. Throughout the rest of the day when I heard people talking about their favourite speakers, those from this first session were mentioned a lot.

Ceri Goddard of the Fawcett Society was the first speaker and talked about the way women and economic policy have always been seen as completely removed from each other - and that this was something noticeable in the General Election earlier in the year. It made me think about the fact that the only time women and the economy were ever mentioned in the same sentence was when referring to child benefit, as if it's the only aspect of economics that concerns and affects us.

Ceri set the tone for the whole session, stating that the cuts will be hitting women the hardest and that the government did no Impact Equality Assessment to see if this would be the case. She highlighted the problematic nature of tax breaks for married couples where one partner does not work and the fact that the committee overseeing the cuts is completely male.

Helena Kennedy QC delivered a fantastic speech on the nature of exploitation as always involving power and/or money. She spoke of the way activism in 1970s shone a light into the way institutions were run and the way in which they treated women. But as she explained, the gatekeepers of everything in our society are still men and we're still in a situation where just a few visible women in these institutions are seen as proof that 'equality' has arrived. She ended by talking about the importance, therefore, of supporting and promoting women.

Lindsey Hills spoke on the perception of young mothers. As someone who had a child in her teens, she talked about the prejudice she faced and the difficulty of living on welfare - contrary to tabloid portrayals of young women who have babies 'so they can get a house and lots of benefits', Lindsey's experiences showed this is not the reality. She's involved in various projects and organisations which empower young mothers and is keen to help them show society that the negative stereotypes of women who have children young are unfair.

Rahila Gupta discussed women in journalism and writing with plenty of emphasis on the fact that even what we perceive to be 'liberal' spaces are full of prejudice - one example of this being that women of colour are rarely invited to comment on any issues aside from those specifically pertaining to women of colour. She challenged us to think about the extent to which our narrative is compromised or 'diluted' by 'rules of engagement' - for example newspapers and magazines having certain issues they don't talk about, certain things which they don't think their readership would be interested in. As we all know, this often affects feminism as it is portrayed in women's magazines because they feel they have a duty to stay 'on message' about fashion, men and makeup, often ending up talking about how the movement relates to these things over anything else.

Finally, Virginia Heath spoke about women in film and the inequalities of representation there. She also talked about her project My Dangerous Lover Boy, which aims to address the realities of the trafficking of young women.

The morning workshop which was the one I'd actually registered for was 'Violence Against Women as a Hate Crime', with a panel made up of Prof. Jill Radford, Hillary McCollum, Dr Aisha Gill, Pragna Patel and Vera Baird QC. The room was packed out and we were treated to a really interesting discussion, partly because the panelists didn't agree with each other on all points and also because of the wealth of experience they had to speak from.

Jill Radford talked a lot about findings on VAW from the WLM in the 1970s and violence as a strategy of control which was fascinating. One recurring point was the fact that we should not depoliticise the struggles surrounding VAW because we are probably about to enter a period of time where it will be firmly off the political agenda; another was the way that recent state responses to VAW have been more of a form of immigration control which has only pushed the problem abroad.

There was definite conflict over whether classifying VAW as a hate crime would be a positive step. On one hand it's important that VAW does not become any more 'acceptable' than it already is, but on the other, hate crimes have been shown to encourage communities to turn on each other and the very word 'hate' could make it difficult for some people to admit to being a victim. Similarly, it could pose problems with intersectionality and forcing women to identify as being the victim of a particular crime when other factors - for example homophobia or racism - might be involved and just as important.

At lunchtime it was fantastic to meet up with Sian of Sian & Crooked Rib and spend some time together. Sian is doing some fantastic work online and in Bristol so DEFINITELY check out her blog if you don't already read it. Woman is a powerhouse.

I managed to get a seat at the afternoon workshop entitled 'It's Easy Out There For A Pimp', which as you can imagine was pretty intense. The aim of the workshop was to outline how porn culture affects young people and prepares girls and boys to play certain 'roles' when it comes to self esteem, sex, relationships and exploitation - with one of the main points being that our media landscape is such that this is often not questioned and accepted as 'just a part of life' or even desirable behaviour. The role of corporations in portraying sex as something which is bought and sold, something involving degradation and a lack of respect, was discussed, as was the fact that this is something being pushed upon children from a young age and seriously affecting their wellbeing.

The workshop was accompanied by an extensive slideshow dealing with trends in porn and the way the majority of mainstream porn promotes a focus on humiliation, degradation, disgust and pain as well as the explosion in popularity of imagery of very young women. Panelists were Rebecca Mott and Anna Van Heeswijk of Object. As expected there were several conflicting reactions from delegates and questions prompted discussion on erotica, BDSM and the relationship feminists have with sex workers. Rebecca expressed her frustration at the way the movement often excludes the voices of prostitutes and spoke of many women she knows who feel let down and patronised by feminism.

I felt like the day was over much too quickly. I was pleased I chose those particular workshops but to be honest there were so many others that I would have loved to have been involved in. A goal for next year will probably be to go to one of the sessions on parenting. By 4pm we were all back in the main hall for the closing session which provided a truly rousing and inspiring finale.

Natasha Walter talked about stereotyping and the fact it means women and girls are not encouraged to live up to their full potential, which is something we can all agree with. She urged us not to give up the fight however terrible things seem; to 'never give up hope'. Anna Fisher spoke from a anti-capitalist perspective and said that she doesn't want equality with men if this means participating in the exploitation of others through capitalism, highlighting that there is major difference between hating men and hating what patriarchy and capitalism have done to them.

The closing speech of the conference was given by Finn MacKay who was most definitely on form and characteristically emotive and fabulous. Her main points? That we shouldn't have to 'rebrand' feminism as if it's something to be ashamed of, that the emphasis should be on reclaiming it instead. That in a world where it's framed as being about 'choices' and 'doing whatever makes you feel good' we need to remember the women's movement is about politics and the law and life and death. That the UK's rape crisis is not the amount of false accusations and that we must challenge this society that blames us for everything. And that all men have an important role to play by not supporting oppressive structures, by not treating us as a commodity - because we believe in their humanity. It was a speech that earned her a standing ovation.

I was so pleased I'd nabbed myself a ticket for the after-party with its food, bar and entertainment - not just because I felt like I could really do with a drink by that point but because it gave me the opportunity to have a really good chat with Kristin Aune, who I've been keen to meet since I became aware of all the work she's done on women in the church.

Throughout the day I was able to catch up with some lovely people and was inspired to get the ball rolling on a couple of projects (as always, time permitting). After a busy few weeks FIL was a welcome opportunity to engage my brain again. I think it was an overwhelmingly positive experience for the majority of those who attended - all I've seen so far is fantastic feedback - and I know it left so many people inspired and ready to do more.

FInd out more about the speakers and the other workshops. I'm sure lots of other blog posts will appear soon!


sianandcrookedrib said...

it was such a great day!

moving, powerful. will be blogging soon.

i loved in finn's speech when she said that women are made to feel ashamed of the violence committed against them, to covre up or excuse society's shame. i was moved to tears. and natasha's talk about her work with refugee women. again, so moving and inspiring.

the reproductive rights workshop was fab - a mix of issues from maternal health, abortion and fgm. ann rossiter was amazing. the woman from forward also amazing.

the porn workshop was hard work for me, who isn't very au fait with seeing it. i was a bit disappointed that a lot of the questions were about sex and whether by being anti porn, we were condemning women who like rough sex, or bdsm. to me, porn isn't about sex. there is nothing wrong with with consensual, pleasurable sex, whatever form that takes for the individual, imo. the emphasis being on consensual and pleasurable. but nothing i saw on the slideshow was about pleasure and consent. it was about degrading women. glamorising violence. even glamorising incest and 'barely legal'. doing things to women that meant no pleasure for them, and no additional pleasure to the man, other than through degrading the woman. and the language was all so horrific, and demeaning, and violent. i think we really need to move away from the same old debates about why feminists who are against porn aren't against sex or erotica. i am anti porn because i am pro sex!

rebecca mott is such an incredible woman, speaker and writer. my friend jenn was crying, and i was close to it. and, as ever, anna van heesvijk was fabulous.

all in all, a wonderful, inspiring day. i felt so powerful. this was 'empowerment' - being surrounded by women and men of all ages, all focussed on ending injustice and inequality. just wonderful.

Hannah Mudge said...

Ahhh i wish i had been to the reproductive rights workshop, definitely.

Like you say, i wish that questions surrounding porn would stay 'relevant', because you always get the same ones asked over and over with the same reactions when that wasn't actually what the workshop was addressing.


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